Ambushers lie in wait as Major enters the pass

Tonight's vote on Bill Cash's referendum Bill could bring a sleepy House of Commons to life
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The Independent Online
The floor of the House of Commons may have lost its supremacy over many aspects of public life - judicial, diplomatic, and as the place for national argument - but it retains absolute supremacy in one key area: there, and there alone, are struggling governments killed off. That is not an interesting observation. But, as John Major's administration twitches and jerks its way across the front pages, it is an essential one.

On all sides, this seems a government that rests on powder-fragile foundations. At Stormont, the ultimate guarantors of Major's majority, the Ulster Unionists, are being angrily confronted by a table they don't want to sit around. The politics of the next few weeks of Northern Irish life will be, to put it mildly, turbulent and impatient; Mr Major has commented privately that he may be the first British premier to be ousted by the Irish question since William Gladstone.

Meanwhile, at Luxembourg and Brussels, and other places where politics has been generally placid and patient, British ministers are being harangued by continental politicians who have had enough. The European Union is an institution founded upon the politics of compromise and wink. Without second-bests and weary handshakes, it would not exist at all. Yet Britain has achieved the hitherto-unthinkable; we have united every other country in uncompromising mood against us. In that, as in some of his recent privatisations, Mr Major has comprehensively out-Thatchered Margaret Thatcher.

In this pass, he can go forward or he can retreat. If he carries on with his campaign, vetoing many more innocent and useful EU initiatives, then he will confirm the growing continental view that he is not worth doing business with. The big players are now at least half-committed to sitting the Major government out, giving it no political help at all, and waiting for Tony Blair. The Prime Minister is dangerously close to becoming friendless in the EU, in a way Lady Thatcher never quite was.

Certainly, thus far, the veto-barrage has produced greater stubbornness in Paris and Bonn, not less. This will make the Government vulnerable, at least in theory, to further defections from the Tory left - to another few Howarths or Nicholsons. Having spoken to some of the Europhiles in recent days, I can confirm that they are depressed. (And yet, aren't they always, these days?) For to retreat would probably be even more dangerous for Major. Malcolm Rifkind has already allowed through three exceptions to the vetoes. This implies that, if the issues are important enough, other exceptions will follow. Once they start, there is a small army of diplomats and other civil servants who will most eloquently make the case for yet more exceptions, and the grand attack will disintegrate.

If that happens, those political isolationists whose prejudices Messrs Rifkind and Major have been so busy whipping up will not forgive either of them. On balance, the possibility of a kamikaze parliamentary revolt by the right remains likelier than a revolt by the civilised, moist-palmed wets.

Today's vote on Bill Cash's referendum Bill will be a fascinating test of the ultimate strength of the Euro-sceptic and anti-EU right - and the current weakness of the administration's internal authority. To put it crudely, many Conservative MPs now fear Sir James Goldsmith's small Referendum Party more than they fear the government whips.

This may seem bizarre, but is, in fact, quite rational. The whips can hector and report back to Downing Street; but they will not be there on election day, when Goldsmith's candidates might yet decide whether a chap can keep his seat until 2002. Partly as a result of this, the pro-referendum Tories are privately expecting more than 100 supporters tonight. However glossed, that would be a blow for Major, who is firmly opposed to a wide- ranging plebiscite.

If Ulster looms and storm clouds gather over Europe, then the domestic political weather pattern is as ominous for him too. The pitter-patter of potential defectors has been audible for weeks. The Christian Democrat and literary George Walden has more or less had it with his gross and overly Saxon colleagues. The hooded-eyed conspiracist and right-winger Sir George Gardiner is in trouble with his association, and still making dark threats. And, for light relief, Terry Dicks is threatening to go too, over the Stormont talks. After a decade of reporting politics based, above all, on the principle of never taking Mr Dicks seriously, one is reluctant to start now. Even so, the general impression of a friable and flaking Conservative majority is hard to avoid.

Look at all that, and you would think that the Tories are likely to be out by October. If you were an Opposition politician, then you would certainly hope so. This may be a shallow, consumer-led recovery, of a predictable sort; but it is a real one. It would be extraordinary if it didn't start to show up in the polls. There are senior Whitehall people who feel that Tony Blair isn't home yet.

The same feeling has led to Mr Blair's office being harangued by Labour supporters who want to know why he hasn't brought down the Government already. From there, the response is tinged with world-weary frustration: ``It's a simple matter of arithmetic. If there is a way to bring them down, we will find it and take it.'' One gets the impression that the Government's success in staving off defeat over the Scott report, despite Robin Cook's brilliantly forensic attack, has taken the edge off Labour's appetite for a vote-of-confidence showdown.

And, indeed, it is not so easy. Lord Callaghan is Labour's living reminder of how long a minority government can survive, by late-night stratagems, the buying-off of minor parties, and sheer collective willpower. As he has said himself, Callaghan was Prime Minister when Labour's majority was lost as John Stonehouse defected in 1976, setting himself up as the English National Party, before standing trial for theft and fraud. And Callaghan was still Prime Minister when Stonehouse was released from jail in 1979.

What kept Callaghan going, despite the crumbling of the Labour movement in the late Seventies, was the reluctance of the smaller parties to bring him down. Major is in a similar position. He could lose Walden, Dicks, Gardiner and a few more besides, and still struggle on - just so long as the Unionists stick by him. And they would be acting out of character if they threw away their rare and valuable leverage on the Commons before they had to.

Yet Labour should be hungrier and more aggressive in the Commons than they are. The place gives the impression of having gone half to sleep for the summer; which is very convenient for Mr Major and his colleagues. If they can make it to the end of next month, they can probably make it to the Budget; and if they can make it to the Budget, they can probably last until the early spring. And by then ... well, nine months is a very long time in politics. For those reasons, I expect a Labour ambush of some kind within weeks. But I also expect it to fail.